John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 19

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 19

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Saul of Tarsus


The history now again turns to Saul of Tarsus, and hence forth is chiefly engaged in the relation of his proceedings. As therefore this personage is the prominent figure in the remainder of this volume, it may be well to look back slightly into the antecedents of his career.

It is clear that the family of Saul were Hellenists, understood as Jews speaking the Greek language; but not Hellenes, or Greeks converted to Judaism. How long the family had been in this position—that is, how long it had been settled in a foreign land, we do not know; but the aggregate impression made by facts separately few and slight, is, that the family had not been for less than two or three generations absent from Palestine. That, although thus dwelling in a strange land and speaking a strange tongue, the family maintained the purity of its Hebrew descent and of its Hebrew ideas, is clear from the way in which Saul speaks of himself and his ancestors—“Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I.” Note: 2Co_11:22. So that, as elsewhere he contends that he was not behind the very chiefest of the apostles, he would show that, although, a Hellenist, he was in none of those things of which, they boasted behind the chiefest of the Jews. Aware of the importance of taking this position, he fails not, on every proper occasion, to insist upon it. Elsewhere he declares that he was “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin—Hebrew of the Hebrews.” Note: Php_3:5. This last was a very proud distinction among the Jews, as it denoted one who was a Hebrew by both parents, and that by a long series of ancestors, without any admixture of foreign or proselyte blood. In the same sense, and with an equal feeling of dignity, the Bedouin at this day will boast that he is “an Arab of the Arabs.” Usually, persons of the same nation dwelling in a foreign country, learn to merge the special and sectarian differences maintained in their native land. But Saul informs us it was not so in his family; not only was it in the highest sense Jewish, but it stood upon the principles and practice of the then most orthodox Jewish sect—he was “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee.” Note: Act_23:6. In standing by birth, he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in standing by training, he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. The fact that his father was a Pharisee—the sect of all others most suspicious of and most opposed to he influences of Grecian culture, would alone suffice to indicate that his early training was, as far as possible, Jewish; and that the acquaintance he afterwards evinces with Greek literature, Greek customs and Greek ideas, rather arose from the accidents of his position than from distinct instruction. The knowledge of such matters which we acquire in school, must have grown into the living knowledge of an observant and intelligent youth, to whom Greek was the native tongue, who was born and grew up in a Greek city whose very air was redolent of Greek notions and Greek literature, and who had the habits of Greek life and religion daily before his eyes.

Of Saul’s father, we only know that he was a Pharisee, and that he must have enjoyed the privileges of a Roman citizen, seeing that his son held those high privileges in right of his birth, being “free-born.” His mother is never mentioned or alluded to, which may suggest the possibility that she died soon after his birth. He had, however, a sister—probably older than himself, for her son had grown to manhood when Paul was still of middle age. Note: Act_23:16. He names also several of his kindred, male and female—Andronicus and Junia; Herodion, Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater Note: Rom_16:7; Rom_16:11; Rom_16:21.—all of them converts to Christ, and converted probably through him. It is interesting to learn that, so far as we do know, he had not to encounter the opposition of his kindred, but obtained their concurrence and support. Andronicus and Junia became his “fellow-prisoners;” and the rest were at least converts, if not fellow-laborers.

The fact that Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin, suggests how he came to bear that name. In the first man of that name who is historically known to us, the small tribe of Benjamin had presented to Israel its first king; and this being the most illustrious fact in the disastrous history of the tribe, rendered the name of Saul popular among its members, who delighted to bestow it on their children. Among the other tribes the name was cherished with less affection, and was of comparatively rare occurrence.

There are no materials which enable us to determine the position in life of Saul’s father. In general, the Jews out of Palestine were engaged in trade and commerce. Some were rich through the extent of their transactions, or the direct returns of their capital; but there were hardly any whose wealth arose from landed estate, as, while Palestine remained a Jewish country, every one who desired that position sought for it there. Egypt may have offered exceptions, and still more the East, as these had been for many generations the real homes of large Jewish populations. Abroad there were few Jews very poor; as those who were so, rarely left their own country, and those who became so after having left, returned to it, as there they found provisions for their wants, which did not exist or could not be enforced elsewhere. The majority of the Jews abroad were dealers and tradesmen of various kinds, and were generally in good and sometimes in affluent circumstances. It is probable that Saul’s father was of this class. That he was not poor is shown by the fact that his son had a first-rate education, which he was sent to Jerusalem and kept there to finish. Yet, on the other hand, this does not imply that he was rich; for the costs of education were very low, and the objects which Saul’s father realized for his son, were not more difficult of attainment than it is now for a humble Scottish or American farmer to give a university education to his son.

The fact that the father was a citizen of Rome, implies nothing as to his condition in life. In regard to this matter, which became of some importance in the subsequent history of Saul, it used to be inferred that Tarsus was one of those cities, all those born in which enjoyed this distinguished privilege. But closer inquiry has shown that Tarsus did not attain this position till long after the time of Saul, though it was in his time a free city, in the sense of being governed by its own laws and magistrates, and of being exempt from tribute. Hence we find later in our history (Act_22:29), that the tribune at Jerusalem was not debarred from scourging Saul by the knowledge that he was of Tarsus, but desisted when he further learned that he was a Roman citizen. It must therefore have been an individual right; but how it was acquired is open to conjecture. As Saul was born to this right, it must have been derived from his father; and if Saul could receive it as a birth-right, his father might so have received it likewise. It may have been acquired—as it often was—from some service rendered to the Romans, or to some eminent Roman, during the civil wars; or, although Saul himself was free-born, his father or remoter ancestor may have purchased the right for some “great price.” It is even possible that, although brought up at Tarsus, Saul may have been actually born in some other city, the mere fact of birth in which conveyed the rights of citizenship.

It appears, by the subsequent history, that Saul had learned in his youth the trade of a tent-maker, by which he was able to earn his living. But neither does this throw any light upon the position of his father; for it was a very laudable custom among the Jews, even the wealthiest, that all their sons should learn some trade, as a security against want under all the vicissitudes of life. Many sayings, enforcing this obligation, are found in the Talmud. Rabbi Judah is there reported as saying—“He who teacheth not his son a trade, doth the same as if he taught him to be a thief.” And among the sayings ascribed to Saul’s own master—the Rabban Gamaliel—is this—“He that hath a trade in his hand, to what is he like? He is like a garden that is fenced.” Having thus to choose a trade for his son, it was very natural that he should select that of tent-making, as this trade was largely carried on at Tarsus. The tents were mostly of goats’ hair, and, as in Cilicia, of which Tarsus was the capital, the hair of the goat was remarkably long, it was highly esteemed for the manufacture of the hair cloth of which such tents and other articles were made. This cloth indeed took its distinguishing name from the locality which afforded the material, and whence the cloth itself, being woven in the province chiefly, came by the name of cilicium. This hair-cloth, being less liable than any other to injury from wet, was used, not only for the coverings of tents, but for the coats of sailors and fishermen; for sacks in which to carry packages on horseback; for bags to hold workmen’s tools; for coverings to military engines; and even to lay over the walls of besieged towns, to deaden the force of the battering-rams, and to prevent the wood-work from being set on fire. All this gave great prominence to this branch of manufacture at Tarsus; and as the probability is, that Saul’s father was in some kind of business, and as the men usually give their sons the trades to which they have easiest access, it may seem not unlikely that he was himself in some way engaged in the traffic with, or the manufacture of, hair-cloth.